How free-range should I let my kids be?

We spent the weekend in Colorado, at a campsite beside a mountain-bike-race, where many dozen kids ran around in free-range style.

Photo: Made it! Home sweet home for the next few days.

For the most part, it was glorious. Sophie and some other seven-year-olds decided to open up a restaurant at the picnic tables. They cleaned off the tables, gathered dandelion centerpieces, raided their parents’ snack-bags, wrote up menus (goldfish crackers, water, and gummie bears were on offer), then walked around the campground recruiting customers. After that, they created a secret space by a creek, and I let them go there by themselves as long as they promised not to get wet. They collected sticks and rocks. They got to ride on the campground hosts’ donkey and they got their first ride in the back of a pick-up truck, too.

Photo: Nothing like your first ride in the back of a pickup.

My kids walked to the campground store all by themselves, with a $5 bill to spend on ice cream sandwiches, and I only had to remind them not to eat their ice cream in the store. There is no place near us where they can do that by themselves, walk safely to a store and select their own small purchase, and it seems like a rite of passage of childhood. It was wonderful to watch, from a quarter mile back, seeing them take on new responsibilities. Now, at home, Everett is collecting all the money he can find because now he knows that money can be changed into ice cream.

His sister is also trying to teach him to cartwheel.

Photo: While @jonesbenjamind rode 64 miles thru mud & rain, Sprout spent the Gunnison Growler teaching Tractor how to cartwheel.

Now I get to figure out how much independence to give my growing-up kids. At this weekend’s camping, Soph spent a lot of time inside the trailer of the girl who had created the restaurant with her. It finally occurred to me to ask, “Are A’s parents home?”

“No, they went to town,” Soph told me blithely. “But they left her with a walkie-talkie so she can call them if she needs them.”

And I let her keep on playing there. I even let Everett go over to that trailer, one evening. The girls assured me they would take care of him. “He needs help getting his shoes off,” I reminded them, and they all assured me they would help him. They were playing the cardgame uno, I think, or maybe an elaborate fantasy about orphaned unicorns at cooking school. The weekend is a blur. In any case, the trailer had that calm hum of sweet play, and I had to go wash our dishes or take care of some other camping chore anyway, so I was happy to leave the kiddos.

Fifteen minutes later, Everett came toddling up to our campsite, barefoot. He had grown bored and walked home. He had taken a circuitous route home, but he had made it. It was dusk, just when lots of cars were pulling into the campsite, not yet aware that packs of feral kids were running about: a car-accident was one risk, along with just getting lost, or injuring his little two-year-old feet on those gravel roads. Soph came home ten minutes after that, and when I chided her for losing her brother, she said, “Oh, we didn’t notice he had left.” I had to go over to A’s trailer to fetch Everett’s shoes.

Ben was not concerned at all. Independence is good for kids, he thinks. I am not a hovering parent, but I do think that I have learned that Soph still needs parents around. She’s not yet old enough to babysit outside of our own house. She’s 7, he’s 2. I am so proud of them for going to the camp store alone, but I am also not yet ready to  let them give up on all childhood supervision. I’m still figuring out how long the rope should be, how far I let my kids travel towards independence.

Coincidentally, the day that we got home, we went to a birthday party at the campground a mile from our house in California. My kids started climbing trees there and I listened to other parents cautioning their children: “There’s too many kids in that tree, you can’t climb it, these branches might break, you can’t climb it, it’s getting dark out, you can’t climb that tree.” And I missed our Colorado campground.

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